A British journalist has been found guilty of contempt by a court in Bangladesh for questioning the official death toll in the country’s war of independence.
David Bergman, an investigative journalist with the Dhaka-based New Age newspaper, examined the evidence behind the Government figure of three million fatalities in the 1971 conflict on his blog.
But on Tuesday a specially convened court found that three posts dating back to 2011 were in contempt of Bangladesh’s domestic war crimes tribunal, the ICT, and gave Mr Bergman the choice of paying a fine or being jailed for a week.
Judges ruled that a blog post on the death toll in November 2011 had “hurt the feelings of the nation”, handing him a 5,000 taka penalty (£40).
Mr Bergman, who reported on the ICT for The Independent and other international media outlets, said he was “shocked” by the order.
“It is likely to make it increasingly difficult for journalists and others to comment on judicial proceedings and judgments in Bangladesh, even when those proceedings are completed,” he told The Independent.
“And this should be of great concern to those interested in freedom of speech and the proper scrutiny of state institutions in Bangladesh.”
He had stridently defended his articles, making submissions to the court that the proceedings themselves were unlawful due to delays and being initiated by a third party, and that the articles constituted fair criticism.
But the lawyer who filed the petition against him, Abul Kalam Azad, told AFP the judgement was “fair and right”.
“No one has the right to question the three million death toll in the 1971 independence war. It is a settled issue,” he said.
Mr Bergman, who lives in Dhaka with his wife, is not permitted to appeal the ruling and plans to pay the fine.
“It is has always been our views that the comments in the three articles in the blog, represented fair comment and criticism in sober and reasonable language,” he said.
“It should also be noted that the tribunal convicted me even though in its judgement read out in court did not find a single error of fact in the articles.”The ICT, set up in 2009 to investigate atrocities committed by the Pakistan Army in the 1971 war, has prosecuted several opposition leaders for mass murder when they were acting on behalf of Islamabad, then ruling Bangladesh as East Pakistan.
There have also been several contempt prosecutions against individuals and media outlets over reporting on the tribunal’s findings.
Mr Bergman said his prosecution was based on the archaic offence of “scandalising the court”, which has been abolished by the UK but remains in some countries formerly under British rule.
It is committed by publishing anything deemed to bring the administration of justice into disrepute.
The ICT put the toll of the war of independence at “3 million (thirty lacs) people were killed more than 200,000 (two lacs) woman raped, about 10 million (one crore) people deported to India as refugees and million others internally displaced”.
But the death toll is a continuing matter of contention in Bangladesh, as the Government figure contradicts several independent estimates of far lower figures in the hundreds of thousands.
Critics claim Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s administration has exaggerated the number to justify proceedings in the ICT after charities including Human Rights Watch questioned its impartiality and raised concerns about the lack of international involvement.